Microsoft’s Windows 8.1 update is now available to download. Windows 8 users will see a notification in the Windows Store with a prompt to upgrade to the new operating system. Microsoft has added a number of improvements with this update, including built-in Bing search, smart SkyDrive syncing, and visual changes to the Start Screen and application snapping and more importantly you see a START button with 8.1
On the new 8.1 Start Screen, Microsoft again borrows from Windows Phone 8 by introducing new large and small Live Tiles. The Weather tile can now expand to show three different cities and three days of forecasts at the same time, and Calendar will display all of your events for the day. The Windows Store tile is also animated now, providing constant app recommendations. While most of the Start Screen improvements are focused on the new Windows 8-style apps, Microsoft is also now allowing traditional desktop apps to use colorful tiles instead of just app icons, which should make everyone’s Start Screen look a little nicer
Windows 8.1 allows for a lot more rationalization across the board. You can now pick from built-in backgrounds that move and animate as you swipe, but there’s also the ability to change the color scheme with a color picker that’s a lot more flexible than Windows 8 ever was. But the real star of the show is the ability to set the desktop wallpaper as the backdrop for the Start Screen. It sounds simple, but it’s an effective way to bridge the otherwise jarring switch from desktop to Start Screen.
Perhaps the single biggest change in Windows 8.1 is Microsoft’s approach to search. Where it used to be specific and tailored, it’s now universal. If you search for “Store” in Windows 8.1 it will still show you the app, but now it also reaches out to Bing’s web engine to find results. Search is now a separate app gathering documents and data stored locally or in SkyDrive, system settings, and even web results all in a single interface.
If you’re an existing Windows 8 user then moving to 8.1 should be relatively pain free. The update will retain all desktop and Windows 8-style apps, including files and settings. It’s worth backing up just in case, but it should be like any other patch through Windows Update that Microsoft supplies on a monthly basis. Windows 8.1 Preview users will have a slightly different experience depending on how the Preview was originally installed. If you installed Windows 8.1 Preview from the Windows Store on top of Windows 8 then you can move straight to the final edition in the Store today. Personal files will be retained, but apps will need to be re-installed.
Microsoft ties together its visual changes and features with a new set of built-in app improvements, centered more than ever around SkyDrive. Microsoft’s cloud-based storage system really powers Windows 8.1 this time around. The sync engine is built directly in, and Microsoft has made some smart improvements to the way that files sync to Windows 8.1 PCs. Instead of pulling down the entire SkyDrive storage to a local PC, it loads icons, and just enough information required to identify the file. When you open the file, it downloads it on the spot. You can set folders and files to download fully so they’re available offline, or just set an entire SkyDrive instance to remain offline on the PC.
The built-in apps for Windows 8 felt rushed and lacking in features, but Microsoft has really improved every single one with Windows 8.1 and there are even a few new ones to speak of. Each app has been visually refreshed, and some even have a Windows Phone-like app bar to improve navigation. The Mail app has been completely redesigned, improved for both touch or keyboard and mouse use. You can drag and drop messages into folders, easily select multiple messages with checkboxes, and generally filter out and manage email a lot more easily. Performance has also greatly improved, with draft emails simply appearing on the right-hand side rather than taking up the full screen.
Outlook.com users naturally get the best experience Microsoft has added in support for favorites, a flagged emails section, and separate filters for newsletters and social emails. Microsoft has also added in the new window option for Mail in 8.1, allowing you to snap messages side by side. Coupled with the new Calendar app, which comes with a redesign and new “what’s next” view, improvements to the People app, and some keyboard improvements for quick number entry, the built-in Mail experience is light-years ahead of what was available in Windows 8.
Update: If you’re having trouble finding the update in the Windows Store, simply visit this article on your Windows 8 device and click this link